The age-old tradition of reindeer herding is under threat as herd numbers drop and fewer people make it their career. DARIO THUBURN finds out why and what is being done to preserve a way of life.

Muffled up in thickly padded coats and reindeer skin boots, the reindeer herders of the remote Arctic village of Lovozero, in Russia’s Murmansk region, may well be the last to practise an age-old way of life.

It’s getting more difficult,” says a weather-beaten Vasily Cherchevich, a herder for 30 years, as he speeds off on his snowmobile across a frozen lake surrounded by frosted pine trees.

The arrival of mobile phones and snowmobiles has made his job easier, but salaries are low and warmer winters mean the reindeer cannot easily cross frozen rivers, the 44-year-old says.

At a local vocational school, housed in a single-storey wooden house, Valentina Sovkina, the deputy head of the school, complains there are not enough young people wanting to learn the trade. “There are very few people who want to become reindeer herders, very few,” she says.

Out of 40 herders trained up in the arts of lassoing, tagging and feeding the reindeer, as well as warding off bears, only 10 have graduated in the past 29 years.

The inhabitants of Lovozero, an impoverished village of 3000 people, say the reindeer herd is shrinking and young people are reluctant to become herders.

Reindeer herding is not attractive, you have to spend a lot of time in the tundra. You can’t set up a family,” says Sovkina, a native Saami.

The average herder earns £75 a month and has to live in the tundra forests between March and November in shifts of up to two months, sometimes longer. The herding crisis began with the Soviet experiment; painful decades for a population that has lived in the upper reaches of Russia- as well as Norway and Sweden- for thousands of years.

Herders were forced to move to Lovozero from their pastures in the 1960s because of Soviet military and industrial activity. Sovkina was one of hundreds of Saami children who were forcibly taken away from their parents and housed in dormitories.
“It was terrifying … we thought we were fine as long as we had a reindeer hide to sleep on,” she says. “But the government said each child had to have a little bed.”

Soviet changes led many herders to commit suicide and others to turn to alcohol, tearing a vital bond between local families and the reindeer herding life.

According to a legend popular among the Saamis, reindeer and humans are descended from Meandash, a half-reindeer, half-man deity with wings instead of arms.

At Tundra, a local farm that is the village’s main employer, the director says herders are powerless against poachers and rich foreign hunters who mow down their herds.

By the end of World War II, during which reindeer brigades transported Soviet armed forces, the number of reindeer at Tundra was 41,000. In 2005, there were 28,141 reindeer left. Even though the numbers of reindeer are shrinking, there are only 74 men to herd them, when that figure should be 101.

But Larisa Avdeyeva, head of the local community centre, says the reindeer- herding life could be preserved. She runs a centre funded by the Norwegian Barents Secretariat that has revived traditional feasts for the region’s 2000 Saamis and holds folk art workshops.

“Before, they were considered third-class citizens – now the Saami are not ashamed anymore,” she said.

Avdeyeva says fostering more cultural pride and encouraging more tourism will ensure the reindeer-herding tradition continues.”